The young and healthy can die from influenza complications


Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was holding on to life by a mere thread and nothing and no one could stop his dying.

His battle had been lost against MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a brief influenza-like illness.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic, his lungs collapsing and his renal function deteriorating.   He had remained unresponsive during his ICU ordeal due to intentional sedation.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s hands.

After almost a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group of family and friends gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. Most were the age of their friend; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, helped distribute gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to come in after the ventilator had been removed and he was barely breathing without assistance. They entered his room and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong young body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, the sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held his son’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort. It was okay to let go. It was okay to leave us now. We will see you again. We’ll meet again.  We’ll know where you can be found.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his father’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his father was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mother joined in as well. His sisters wept and sang. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And then he left us, his flesh and heart having failed, to enter into a new life of joy and peace.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by a powerful pathogen. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, stricken by a common virus followed by a devastating bacterial pneumonia, was now lost to this mortal life, having profoundly touched so many people in his dying. His parents’ grief in their loss, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains, even now a few years later, unforgettable.

This was their promise to their son as they let him go, as he was lost to them: that he would be found, that he was deeply loved.

This was their sacred gift to us who witnessed this love in the letting go: such Grace will lead us all home.

Emily Gibson is a family physician who blogs at Barnstorming.

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